Step into the time tunnel folks. In VIVARIUM we are heading back to 1898, Siberia and the seismologist Edgar Vuntaf discovers a continent absent humans but teeming with other-worldy looking lifeforms! And scientists being curious folk, the Vivarium Syndicate was formed to explore this new land and discover more about the flora and fauna living there!
It’s Drafting, Jim, But Not As We Know It!
After setting up the rows from which players will be drafting Creatures, Equipment, and Contracts, as well as giving each player their domino tiles, a gem, two personal scoring objective contract cards (Creature Type and Creature colour), and placing out the round Priority tokens, it’s time to begin!
The rules for VIVARIUM are simple (just what we like!) and it plays in just 7 rounds! Each round has a Priority set and players who collect the most of what is shown on the token will gain the token for end game points. Gems are also awarded each time one of those card colours/types are collected by a player on their turn. Gems are useful as they help you manipulate the domino result in the drafting phase , and unused ones are worth points at end game.
Hitting The Tiles
On their turns, players use a pair of domino tiles to form a location and take the corresponding card from the face up tableau - it could be a Creature, Equipment to help collect more cards/gems, or a Contract (scoring objective). Creatures have VP values and Equipment cards have useful abilities for either in game or end game purposes as well as gems. Contracts don’t give anything on collection but they will pay out points at end game if you satisfy their set requirements.
The neat twist here is that players must use one of their own dominoes and swap their other one for the shared domino in order to select a location for card collecting. And I’m not going to say it…..but I totally am……restrict what card the next player can take on their turn! Mwuahahaha! Love us some sneaky play!
If no card appeals, there is also the option to pass and collect gems which should give more manipulation powers in the next drafting phase (or end game points if banked).
At the end of each round, the rows are re-stocked, and the priority token for that round is awarded and a new one gets flipped.
After the 7th round, players count up their VPs from gems, Creature cards, Priority tokens, and completed Contracts (bearing in mind any effect Equipment may have). The winner is the player with the most points!
We really enjoy playing VIVARIUM! It's super easy to learn and the rules feel almost intuitive and yet it’s big on strategy. Now I could say that’s because we love set collecting in our house, so are used to the rhythm of the mechanic. But having played it with a casual gamer friend recently, they picked up the gameplay after just one turn, and had a blast to boot!
Each decision in VIVARIUM presents a really fun trade off - do you pick a card that will go towards your secret objectives or do you use one of your turns to go for another Contract? Do you go for Equipment that could boost your drafting abilities? Or do you go for a Creature before you lose the chance? Do you pick a card you know (or you think you know) an opponent really wants or do you focus on your own game and sacrifice the chance to steal it from under their nose? Ooh the possibilities……..Luck plays a part in any drafting game, but we feel like VIVARIUM offers plenty of ways to mitigate the initial offerings.
The reducing number of cards available to pick as a round goes on also creates a lovely tension. And (perhaps most importantly for us right now) 2P mode works really well to maintain that feeling. There are fewer dominoes in play (one of the central ones being flipped over ready for the next round), and one column of cards is removed at the beginning of a new round. As players still take two turns each per round, card choice remains limited, and it helps with cycling through more cards in the deck.
The dominoes themselves are gorgeous to hold and are also really integral to the clever twist on drafting and set collection - it feels unique but in a familiar way which is awesome! I really like the fact we have to swap a domino with one on the table. The effect is that my co-ordinates for drafting suddenly change what is/isn't available - sneaky! The artwork is really striking too!
Overall we really like VIVARIUM – it’s fast, fun, and accessible. It’s also got a really nice distinctive twist on drafting which sets it apart from other card collecting games!